SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea announced on Tuesday it had completed its first commercial freight voyage via the Northern Sea Route, amid growing global interest in the increasingly open Arctic Ocean shipping route.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said it had shipped in 44,000 tonnes of naphtha via the Northern Sea Route in a pilot project aimed at slashing energy transport costs and avoiding piracy risks associated with the Suez Canal.
The shortcut between Asia and Europe along Russia's Arctic coast has been eyed with increasing interest by Chinese, Japanese and South Korean energy firms in recent years, as melting ice due to global warming opens up sea routes for longer periods.
The ministry said the naphtha-laden freighter, operated by logistics company Hyundai Glovis, had docked on Monday in the southern port of Gwangyang, after taking 35 days to make the 15,000km journey from the Russian port of Ust-Luga.
"The available period of operation at the Arctic Sea and the size of cargo volume are increasing," the South Korean ministry said in a statement.
"As such, the Northern Sea Route has the strong potential to grow into a huge cargo transport market," it added.
Until recently, negotiating the Northern Sea Route was largely left to the specialist vessels of Scandinavian countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
Taking the Northern Sea Route can shorten the same voyage via the Suez Canal by up to 10 days, although it carries extra costs including the hiring of ice breakers.
Environmentalist groups are opposed to developing the passage for commercial shipping - fearing a catastrophic oil spill in one of the world's last great wildernesses.